When the pickup stopped at the mill cabin the next morning, Toby jumped right onto Ned’s stomach then sprang over the side of the truck, beagle ears flopping. Ned cursed as soon as he was finished gasping for breath then jumped down too, but when he hit the ground his feet slammed flat on the hard-packed dirt.
But he could not pause for pain with Jamie pulling on his arm.
“Hurry up, would you? Let’s get the coffee done so we can get back on the engine.”
Jamie ran ahead. Ned stumbled up the cabin steps after him, but before he could get to the screen door Jamie banged his way back out past him, cleared the steps in a single jump and ran in the direction of the well, coffeepot in hand. Ned plodded to the stove, sat down and tugged the spring handle on the cast iron door. He laid in a fire using fat lighter sticks from the woodbox.
By the time the fire was drawing well Jamie was still not to be seen. Ned stood up to look outside and saw Jamie standing beside his father, Snow and Cyrus. Jamie’s father shook his head, climbed in the pickup and drove out. Cyrus tilted his head in a sideways nod then turned and walked away toward the work sheds.
Ned closed the stove door then stepped back outside to find out what was going on. He pushed through the screen door and down the steps. Snow waved at him. Ned shoved his hands in his pockets and walked over.
“You gonna be whitewashing by y’self for a while. Mr. Garrath seems to think I can’t pay attention to the engine and but one of you at a time. This mornin’ it’s just gonna be Jamie with me.” Snow turned and laid one hand on Jamie’s shoulder. “Why don’t you go git the tools, you know where they are.”
Ned watched Jamie look down at Toby. “You stay with Ned today, okay boy? I’m not gonna have time to play today.” Jamie shoved the coffee pot at Ned, tilted his head in a twisted grin then turned and sprinted into the cabin for the tools.
Ned looked at Snow.
“You know where all the buckets and brushes is. Don’t forget to scrape well and slop the whitewash on good and heavy so’s we don’t gots to do it but once. All right?” Snow slapped the back of Ned’s shoulder, then walked away toward the saw shed.
Jamie blasted by, tool box and bucket rattling in hand and caught up with Snow.
As the two walked away beneath the trees Toby gave a low wuff.
Ned reached down and scratched Toby’s ears. “I hear you.” Toby stood up and rubbed against Ned’s leg, then turned away, head and tail drooping down, to plump down hard on the cool dirt underneath the cabin. “Yeah, well.”
Ned was just heaving a five gallon bucket of whitewash out of the door of the goo shed with both hands when he felt someone come up beside him. It was Cyrus.
“Here, this might help.” Cyrus set another empty bucket down beside the full one. “Sometimes it’s easier to carry two half-buckets than one full one.” He took the full bucket from Ned, poured half of the whitewash in the empty one and set it down. “Give that a try.”
Ned picked up both buckets, one in either hand. They were still heavy, but at least now the load was balanced and didn’t pull his shoulders out of whack. He looked up at Cyrus. “Yeah, thanks.”
Cyrus nodded just once, then stepped into the tool shed. The tall man picked up a broad file and bent over the bench vice to stroke the edge of an axe.
As Ned turned away, the handles from the buckets biting into the crooks of his fingers, he heard the engine hit just once, then nothing. A sharp curse cracked against the air. Ned smiled just a little, then dragged his feet in the dirt toward the office cabin.
When the morning train whistle blew Ned put down his brush, sat down in the dirt by the cabin and leaned his back up against the clapboard wall. He sipped water from his mason jar and sweated, and looked at the whitewash coating his pants.
Neither Jamie nor Snow nor Cyrus made an appearance at the morning break. The men gathered around the pump, drank their water and sat, too hot for conversation.
Not many minutes after the break ended he heard one large bang, then a series of irregular bangs not as loud in an odd syncopated rhythm. Then the clatter died and he was left with the sloppy squish of his whitewash brush against the rough clapboards.
The noon train whistle wailed. As Ned leaned back to ease the ache in his back, the brush slipped from his hand and dropped into the bucket. The splash soaked his leg. He wiped his hands on a rag, got his lunch flour sack from the cabin and sat down on the oak tree root on the side away from the sun to savor the time off and the food Jamie’s mother had packed. As he chewed slowly he saw Toby curled up under the cabin in the cool dirt.
Jamie ran up with the blue toolbox and the tin bucket into the cabin, then burst back outside carrying his own flour sack.
The ground thumped as Jamie almost fell on the ground beside him. “Aw man, you should see it spin.”
Ned took a big bite out of his sandwich. He was a little tired of chicken and spoke through the mouthful of food. “I was there yesterday, remember?”
“Oh yeah. But I was talking about when it runs. It didn’t for long, but Snow says now it’s just a matter of tweaking a little here and there. That big cold steel thing just comes alive.”
“I’m sure it does.”
“It’s kinda running, so I’m back here whitewashing, but good god almighty that was great. I can’t wait to see the saw hooked up to it.” Jamie took a huge bite out of his sandwich. “Snow says the saw blade rings when it runs, and there’s not much short of throwing a car up on the carriage that’ll stop it.”
Ned chewed and watched the ground.
“All right then. How ‘bout after the afternoon whistle we finish up the box trap, get it set in the woods and then go fishing. What do you think?”
“I’ll take that as a yes.” Jamie stuffed another big bite of sandwich into his mouth and slurped on his mason jar. “Sometimes things come together and sometimes they don’t, but when they do come together it can be so good you just can’t stand it.”
Jamie tired quickly of whitewash. Scraping clapboard and slapping on whitewash just didn’t compare to seeing big iron wheels spin and feeling the bang of the engine hammer at his chest.
“You gonna hold that scraper till it rusts or you gonna use it?”
Jamie looked up at Ned and realized he’d stopped. “Oh.” He scraped at the dirty white flakes on the wood again, but felt Ned waiting at his shoulder with the paintbrush. “What, you wanna switch?”
“Might as well.”
They traded tools and Jamie slopped the milky liquid on the heavily scored wood after Ned had scraped, but his head was still full of engine. “It was alive, Ned. It was like we made it wake up.”
The mid-afternoon train whistle wailed. Jamie and Ned gathered up their brushes and buckets and plodded toward the sheds to stash the buckets and tools. As they gathered their lunch sacks from the office cabin, Jamie saw the fishing poles in the corner.
“What say let’s just go fish, how ‘bout it? I don’t feel much like working on the box trap.”
“I think I’m just gonna go back to the house.”
Jamie stopped. “What’s the matter, you sick?”
Ned shook his head. “Nah. Just tired.” He turned and went out, letting the screen door slam behind him.
Jamie watched Ned slowly move up the path, hands buried in his pockets. Then he set his hat more firmly on his head, grabbed his fishing pole and went to the lake.
As Jamie approached the dock he saw the tell-tail switch flicking against the sky and as he got closer, the faded fedora of the Ghost. When he stepped out onto the dock the rest of the Ghost came into view, the bones of his back showing sharp through his thin shirt.
The Ghost turned his face over his shoulder to Jamie. “Yes?”
“Do you mind if I sit here and fish?”
The Ghost shook his head. “Not at all and I thank you. It’s good to meet someone who appreciates the courtesies of fishing.”
Now that Jamie was this close to him, he saw a thick fold in the man’s face tighten and realized he was looking at a smile, though through the man’s smoked glasses it was hard to tell what he was looking at.
It really couldn’t be called a smile. One side of the man’s face seemed to have thicker skin than the other side with smooth dimples running pocked across the surface. A white scar ran from underneath his eye across his cheek.
“Well, I don’t like to be bothered when I’m fishing, so I just figured I don’t want to bother nobody else the same way.”
“A commendable thought. By all means, try your luck.”
Jamie took two steps closer and sat down on the rough dock boards. “There’s really not much luck to it, sir. I just put a worm on, set the bobber so that it’ll wiggle just a little off the bottom. When a fish pulls the bobber under I pull it out. When I’ve got a couple or three or four I go on home. No point in catching more than you can eat.”
The Ghost twisted his half-smile again as he turned toward Jamie. The other side of his face had a jagged scar that seemed to grow like ivy from his ear and down the side of his neck where the lumpy white rope disappeared under his collar. “Does success usually come so easy to you?”
Jamie shrugged and tried not to stare. “Sometimes not. Sometimes they just don’t bite for some reason.”
“Did you ever wonder why a fish would bite a worm in the first place?” The Ghost cocked his head to one side. “Your success is proof positive, but why?”
The question rooted around in Jamie’s mind, but he came up blank. “I don’t know.”
“Let’s see if we can find out before we meet here again.”
“So I’m not bothering you?”
“Oh no. You have the talent for sharing a quiet moment. I thank you.”
Jamie’s brain stumbled for a moment and then shoveled out, “Sure. Don’t mention it.”
The Ghost didn’t offer anything else and Jamie was too afraid to talk any more. He was about to bust with questions about the war and how the Ghost had gotten those scars, but he felt like he’d blabbed on too long. To ask right then just didn’t seem right.
Jamie found Ned with his shoulder leaned under Gramma in the milking shed, steadily filling the milk bucket. “Have I got something to tell you.” Gramma turned to him and mooed. “You’ll never guess who I ran into at the lake.”
“Probably won’t.” Ned did not look up.
Jamie’s mother called them to supper from the back porch. “Jamie, Ned, wash your hands and get in here, supper’s ready!”
“Tell you later. You’re not gonna believe it.”
Supper was quiet except for Jamie’s father talking with his mother about the mill. Ned didn’t talk at all.
Jamie’s mother leaned toward Ned. “Are you all right, honey? You’ve hardly touched your dinner.”
“I’m just tired is all.”
“Why don’t you go on, take your bath and get to bed then. Get some sleep.”
“Thank you ma’am. I think I will.”
By the time Jamie got to bed after listening to the radio with his father Ned was already in bed, turned away and breathing slowly. He wasn’t certain if Ned was asleep or not, but if he wasn’t, he wasn’t in the mood to talk. Jamie blew out the candle and slid into bed as quietly as he could. He listened to the freshening wind through the trees outside his window.
Jamie jerked awake. The sash of his window had always rattled when the wind blew. Now it rattled as a dark shape ducked its way through. Jamie listened like he had a live wire feeding his ears. The window screen banged as the shadow hit his head on the window. The resulting curse revealed the shadow was Ned.
Jamie tried to keep the electric laugh out of his voice. “You all right?”
The only answer was the creak of Ned’s cot.
Jamie slipped out of bed, closed the door as quietly as he could and lit the candle. He pulled the wooden screen frame closed and latched it.
“Daddy’d tan the both of us if he knew you been out like that.” He watched Ned slide his boots and pants off and slide his legs under the covers. “Where you been?”
“Nowhere.” Ned turned his shoulder to Jamie. “Just out.”
“What do you mean, out’?”
Jamie watched Ned’s dark eyes slide over on his. “Don’t tell me you’ve never so much as snuck outside at night.”
“No, never. What’d you go and do that for?”
“Sometimes I just get to feelin’ closed in and just … just to breathe some air.”
“You do that at home?”
“Ever get caught?”
“Not yet.” Jamie watched Ned shake his head. “You can blow out that candle now.”
“Oh, yeah.” Jamie snuffed the candle then opened the door again and slid back under the covers in the dark. “You’re gonna get in trouble; you could get hurt.”
“I don’t wander far.”
“What do you do?” Jamie had heard about sneaking out, but in the country where there wasn’t a whole lot to see, there didn’t seem to be much point.
“Just watch. Watch folks come out of the movie house or the guys in the pool hall a few doors down from the store. I want to see how they move when they’re not working or trying to sell you something or … struttin’ around in church. I want to see them when they’re, you know, out.”
“Out of what?”
“Just out. Night breathes easier.” Ned lifted his head at Jamie, then turned his shoulder and wrapped his sheet up over his back. “Things just feel different.”
Jamie lay back in the dark. It was different all right. The regulator clock ticked in the hall and the wind outside stirred the trees. Altogether different.